Friday, February 27, 2009


HMS Illustrious in Portsmouth harbour.

Illustrious is an Invincible class VTOL/helicopter carrier, or "through-deck cruiser" as she was sold to the military-averse Wilson and Callahan governments. She carries Sea Harrier VTOL figher-bombers and Sea King helicopters. In 2005 she succeeded Invincible as fleet flagship. She has seen duty in the South Atlantic (relieving Invincible after the Falklands War with Argentina), in the Mediterranean and Adriatic during the Balkans crises of the 1990s and the Afghan and Iraq conflicts of recent years (she was actually on exercises in the Persian Sea on 11 September 2001 and remained on station there for several months to provide support if needed).

There was much talk in USN circles when this class was still in the design phase about whether this sort of smaller, more economical ship might be a better solution than the US CVN. The Nimitz class was beginning to appear and the costs and limitations associated with operating so massive a platform were a serious concern for the Navy. Ships like Illustrious cost a small fraction to build and operate what a US fleet CVN requires, so the appeal was obvious. I recall even seeing a proposal to redesign the Spruance class destroyers on similar lines, though it remained a proposal. This photo shows Illustrious alongside a US Nimitz-class carrier: the difference is particularly striking from this angle.

Illustrious and other ships like her have breathed new life into the RN's air arm and operational scope, and also into the operations of other smaller navies. Spain, Italy, Russia and China have worked with similar designs for fleet air support and ASW missions.

The top photo was shot on my last trip overseas, while visiting the Royal Naval Museum. She was one of many sights I hope to post in coming weeks. And no, she was docked there, not on exhibit, so I didn't get to go aboard.

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